The Palestinian Authority's growing authoritarianism
At the beginning of this week, Palestinian Authority (PA) security forces rounded up dozens of people at a demonstration over the death of popular outspoken critic Nizar Banat in the West Bank city of Ramallah, where the Fatah-controlled governing body is headquartered.
They later went after their families, detaining relatives who had staged a sit-in protest in front of the police station in Al-Bireh to demand their release.
Among those detained at the sit-in was attorney Diala Ayesh of Lawyers for Justice, who was physically harassed by PA security officers twice while being briefly detained and taken to the detention centre.
"The PA has launched a crackdown on protests in the wake of Nizar Banat's death at the hands of security forces"
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” she told the media in tears upon her release. The arrests were so violent that at least two people ended up in hospital.
In the previous days, further arrests had taken place amid escalating tensions over the PA's clampdown on dissidents and protesters in the wake of Banat's death in police custody on 24 June.
Last Saturday, Ramallah saw thousands of Palestinians demonstrate to reject violence by security forces and denounce the alleged role played by PA forces in Banat’s death.
Palestinian human rights advocate Farid al-Atrash was arrested early on Sunday while returning from a protest against the PA in the occupied West Bank city.
“Being an opposition activist under PA rule means you pay a very high price,” Palestinian rights activist Issa Amro told The New Arab, speaking from first-hand experience. His peaceful criticism has exposed him to imprisonment, intimidation, and abuse too many times to count.
“I’ve been a victim of smear campaigns, I’ve received lots of death threats, my family and friends have been threatened with either dismissal or arrest,” he continued.
When the human rights defender was detained by the Palestinian police two weeks ago after being summoned over his social media posts in solidarity with Palestinian political prisoners, he was thinking about his friend Banat, who would be dead within days.
Like him, Amro is from Hebron, a flashpoint West Bank city where some 1,000 Jewish settlers live under heavy Israeli military protection surrounded by around 200,000 Palestinians. Both men have long condemned the Israeli occupation, but also criticise the PA, who rights groups accuse of corruption and other rights violations.
The activist, who’s also co-founder of the grassroots group Youth Against Settlement, pointed out that the PA and its security forces control every aspect of life within its jurisdiction, and that Palestinians are expected to show them loyalty.
For the past two weeks, Palestinian security services have relentlessly tried to quash public anger since Nizar Banat died shortly after they stormed his house and arrested him. His family claimed Banat, one of the fiercest critics of the Palestinian Authority and a contender in the cancelled parliamentary elections, was beaten to death.
"Being an opposition activist under PA rule means you pay a very high price"
- Issa Amro
Palestinian legal justice centre Adalah demanded an “official, professional, neutral, independent investigatory commission to probe the PA's policy of torture and killing” and legal action against all PA security personnel connected to Banat's death.
The shocking incident, which triggered a wave of demonstrations across the West Bank against the PA and calls for President Mahmoud Abbas to resign, led to a violent crackdown on activists and dissidents.
Palestinian security services and plainclothes officers have violently dispersed peaceful crowds by firing tear gas and stun grenades, brutally beating demonstrators, journalists, human rights defenders as well as bystanders. Women protesters have been sexually harassed in several instances while female reporters were threatened with rape and had their cameras broken.
“This is Palestinian police and Fatah loyalists charging at Palestinian protestors in Ramallah for demanding accountability for the assassination of Nizar Banat. A horrifying scene. They injured journalists, and civilians. The PA sent thugs and protected them. This is terrifying,” Palestinian writer and researcher Mariam Barghouti tweeted two days after the activist’s death.
Palestinian rights group Al-Haq has been monitoring and documenting the protests throughout this period, documenting numerous violations, namely the use of excessive and indiscriminate force by members of the security forces, both in official uniform and civilian attire, including attacks with batons and rocks, and assaults on journalists.
“The protests have been heavily suppressed, we have witnessed a massive presence of security personnel, and there has been no limitation in the repressive methods used,” Catherine Abuamsha, advocacy lawyer at Al-Haq, told The New Arab, adding that many people including Al-Haq staff were attacked and their phones were confiscated by security officers.
This was presumably in order to stop people from taking photos or making videos of the abuses by PA forces. Palestinians have also been prevented from joining or participating in the rallies in many other ways.
The lawyer highlighted that, in many cases, officers in civilian clothing have assaulted and harassed protesters in front of uniformed members of the security services who “did nothing to protect the citizens”.
"The PA lost its mind, and it lost its legitimacy after calling off the elections"
Activists say the PA has grown further intolerant of dissent and its brutality has increased in the aftermath of Banat’s death. Al-Haq has documented multiple cases of summons and arrests of political activists.
“Before we were already witnessing politically motivated detentions or investigations and violations of rights to freedom of opinion and peaceful assembly, but now it has seriously escalated,” Al-Haq’s advocacy defender noted. “We are seeing a huge scale of repression at the hands of the security services”.
Activists and rights groups have observed growing authoritarianism and the severe regression in public freedoms and rights following the cancellation of legislative and presidential elections this summer by Mahmoud Abbas. The PA has not held presidential elections in 16 years, with Abbas’ mandate as president expiring in 2009.
“The PA lost its mind, and it lost its legitimacy after calling off the elections,” Amro said. “They are using Fatah members to harass and intimidate Palestinians in the streets, trying to tell them: ‘if you want to get rid of us it means blood’”. He argued that PA security forces are ramping up oppression on the ground to force people to accept the ruling power whilst bypassing democracy.
This is Palestinian police and Fatah loyalists charging at Palestinian protestors in #Ramallah for demanding accountability for the assassination of Nizar Banat. A horrifying scene. They injured journalists, and civilians. The PA sent thugs and protected them.— مريم البرغوثي (@MariamBarghouti) June 26, 2021
This is terrifying pic.twitter.com/MgzFyDmzYs
The Palestinian Authority, which was established as part of the peace process in the 1990s, administers about 40% of the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Israel which controls all access to the territory and coordinates with the PA, directly administers the remaining 60%.
Many Palestinians have long accused it of being an extension of the Israeli occupation, particularly due its policy of security coordination with an occupying power.
“The Palestinian Authority is the contractor of the colonizer. When we dare speak up, they assassinate, jail, attack, terrorize and oppress us. Down with these traitors. Dismantling the PA is a necessary step towards freedom,” Grassroots Al-Quds’ director Fayrouz Sharqawi wrote in a tweet.
"Activists say the PA has grown further intolerant of dissent and its brutality has increased in the aftermath of Nizar Banat's death"
Demands for accountability in Palestine have been growing since the death of the activist Nizar Banat in PA custody.
Al-Haq also pressed for an inquiry against members of the security services who committed crimes against participants in the rallies, stating that all officials involved in instructing these security forces must be held to account.
It further called for the release of all those arbitrarily detained for exercising their right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.
“These crimes against civilians should be investigated. Without holding those guilty individuals responsible, there’s no way to end such violations,” Abuamsha stressed.
Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis.
Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec